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The Essence of Nyro : Songwriter Takes a Topical, Back-to-Basics Turn

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From its official beginning in 1966, Laura Nyro’s career has been marked by an unintended tug-of-war between personal art and big-numbers commerce. Based on recent experience, one expects to hear more of the former when the 43-year-old performer-songwriter appears Wednesday night at the Bacchanal.

As a recording artist in the late ‘60s, Nyro was a black-garbed headmistress of the avant-romantic school. In contrast to the wispy, mellow sound of California’s troubadours, Nyro wrote about love and life with the intensity of one born in the Bronx. She welded gospel- and R&B-influenced; pop to dramatic, poetic lyrics delivered with a Gypsy passion.

In championing the pop song as mini-soliloquy on such albums as 1968’s “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession” and 1969’s “New York Tendaberry,” Nyro fostered the singer-songwriter movement of the following decade. Given her abstract proclivities and enigmatic image, however, Nyro’s talents might have remained the private caprice of critics if other performers had not seen the glint of gold in her repertoire.

Her now-classic “And When I Die"--a song Nyro wrote at age 17--was recorded both by Peter, Paul and Mary and by Blood, Sweat and Tears. The 5th Dimension hit pay dirt with her “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Blowin’ Away,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Save the Country” and “Sweet Blindness.” Three Dog Night had a Top 10 hit with “Eli’s Coming.” Barbra Streisand scored with “Stoney End,” “Flim Flam Man” and “Time and Love.”

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Rather than draw Nyro into the spotlight, however, such successes seemed to fuel her reclusive nature. In 1971, at the age of 24, Nyro “retired” to a fishing village in Massachusetts. She emerged five years later, after the breakup of her marriage, but a succession of albums in the ‘70s and ‘80s failed to ignite the public.

An appreciation of Nyro’s work by various fine-arts institutions, meanwhile, continued unabated. The lyrics to all 14 songs on 1984’s “Mother Spiritual” were exhibited at the Chicago Peace Museum. In 1985, she wrote the title song for “Broken Arrow,” the Academy Award-winning documentary about Native American Indians. The estimable Alvin Ailey Dance Company performs to her music in their choreographed piece “Cry.”

Three years ago, Nyro toured the country with a band, and in 1989 released the album “Laura--Laura Nyro Live at the Bottom Line.” Although many of her earlier songs had socially conscious messages, the “Bottom Line” opus exhibited a heightened sensitivity to issues concerning women, war and animals. She performed several of those songs, solo, in a May, 1990, show at the Belly Up Tavern.

Speaking last week from her home in Connecticut, Nyro discussed her most recent mini-tour of outdoor venues in the Northeast, during which she shared a bill with Bob Dylan.

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“It was very different for me to open for someone, but I thought it went pretty well,” she said, speaking softly and deliberately, as though she were weighing her thoughts while releasing them. “A couple of the shows were at fairgrounds, where people in the first few rows would be drinking beer and screaming. I left my ballads out of those shows,” Nyro added, laughing. “So, in a sense, it wasn’t my usual style. But I enjoyed it.”

Style is something that set Nyro apart from the very beginning. Many of her early songs featured bouncy, gospel-cum-vaudeville rhythms that could have fit well in a Gershwin musical. Frequently, however, these were fitted to ironic or even downbeat lyrics, making for some fascinating juxtapositions.

“I don’t know exactly where that style came from,” she said earnestly. “All I can say is that I’ve been influenced by all sorts of American music since I was a kid--gospel, jazz, soul, folk. As a writer, I’ve done a lot of exploring. Even at a young age, I broke with tradition and just tried things out of artistic curiosity. I think that accounts for some of the strange combinations of styles and lyrics in my songs.”

Still, Nyro said that the rhythmic buoyancy one associates with her more popular efforts was not always her idea.

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“Years ago, the recorded versions of my songs sometimes were quite different from what I might have intended. That’s because the production end of it was out of my hands,” she said. “We’d be in a studio, and a band would show up, and the song arrangements would be dictated by what the producer wanted to hear.”

As an example, Nyro cited the song “And When I Die.” Her 1966 recording, produced by Milt Okun, featured the jaunty gait re-created three years later in the familiar Blood, Sweat and Tears version. In last year’s Belly Up concert, however, Nyro gave the song a folkish, brooding reading.

“I feel that only in recent years have I made that song mine again, by getting back to the essence of the song,” she said last week.

That return to form describes Nyro’s current concert style as well. For her performance at the Belly Up, she sat at an electronic keyboard and with subdued, sober versions of both familiar and more obscure material created the intimacy of a curtained confessional.

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While exiting, some members of the capacity audience that night expressed disappointment that Nyro omitted some of her more popular tunes in favor of such new songs as “Louisa’s Church” (which she dedicated to “kick-ass women artists”) and two animal-rights anthems, “Wild World” and “Light a Flame.” She sang an abbreviated “Wedding Bell Blues” and a well-received “Emmie,” but there was no thank-you-thank-you medley of hits.

No one, however, complained about Nyro’s singing, which was strong, clear and expressive. According to the singer, that was no accident.

“My voice has been at its peak since I quit smoking a few years ago,” she said. “Smoking just puts a harness on your voice, and after I stopped I felt completely liberated as a singer. It was no longer a struggle. Now that I’m getting ready to record a new record, I feel I’m singing better than I ever have.”

Nyro will enter the studio sometime this fall to work on the project. She expressed satisfaction with the material, some of which she performed in her Belly Up concert. But Nyro is acutely aware that the public at large might not be as receptive as it once was to her more topical pieces.

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“I feel especially good about the song ‘Light a Flame,’ ” she said. “It is cohesive and melodic, and what I wanted to say about animal rights comes through. But I know it’s not the sort of song that will race up the charts. You know, a funny thing happened. One day not long ago, a good friend kept begging me to sing ‘Save the Country,’ and I really didn’t want to. But finally I sat down at the keyboard and started singing a whole new version, and it just felt right.

“Now, when I do ‘Save the Country’ in concert, I introduce it as an old-fashioned song with an out-of-fashion, pacifist sentiment. I’m not preaching when I sing a song like that or (the new) ‘Holiday Song,’ which also has a pacifist theme. It’s just a simple, heartfelt feeling. And yet, I’m aware of how unfashionable it is to feel that way these days. But I’ll struggle on with my sense of humor intact, which I think helps greatly.”

Laura Nyro will perform a solo concert Wednesday at the Bacchanal, 8022 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. Opening the show at 8:30 p.m. will be Joel Edelstein. Tickets are available at all TicketMaster locations (278-TIXS), or at the club’s box office (560-8022).


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